Apple vs (or plus) Adtech, Part II

My post yesterday saw action on Techmeme (as I write this, it’s at #2) and on Twitter (from Don Marti, Augustine Fou, et. al.), and in thoughtful blog posts by John Gruber in Daring Fireball and Nick Heer in Pixel Envy. All pushed back on at least some of what I said. Here are some excerpts, with my responses. First, John:

Doc Searls:

Here’s what’s misleading about this message: Felix would have had none of those trackers following him if he had gone into Settings → Privacy → Tracking, and pushed the switch to off […].

Key fact: it is defaulted to on. Meaning Apple is not fully serious about privacy. If Apple was fully serious, your iPhone would be set to not allow tracking in the first place. All those trackers would come pre-vaporized.

For all the criticism Apple has faced from the ad tech industry over this feature, it’s fun to see criticism that Apple isn’t going far enough. But I don’t think Searls’s critique here is fair. Permission to allow tracking is not on by default — what is on by default is permission for the app to ask. Searls makes that clear, I know, but it feels like he’s arguing as though apps can track you by default, and they can’t.

But I don’t think Searls’s critique here is fair. Permission to allow tracking is not on by default — what is on by default is permission for the app to ask. Searls makes that clear, I know, but it feels like he’s arguing as though apps can track you by default, and they can’t.

I’m not arguing that. But let’s dig down a bit on all this.

What Apple has here is a system for asking in both directions (apps asking to track, and users asking apps not to track). I think this is weird and unclear, while simply disallowing tracking globally would be clear. So would a setting that simply turns off all apps’ ability to track. But that’s not what we have.

Or maybe we do.

To review… in Settings—>Privacy—>Tracking, is a single OFF/ON switch for “Allow Ads to Request to Track.” It is by default set to ON. (I called AppleCare to be sure about this. The guy I spoke to said yes, it is.) Below that setting is a bit of explanatory text with a “Learn more” link that goes to this long column of text one swipes down four times (at least on my phone) to read:

Okay, now look in the fifth paragraph (three up from where you’re reading now). There it says that by turning the setting to OFF, “all apps…will be blocked from accessing the device’s Advertising Identifier.” Maybe I’m reading this wrong, but it seems plain to me that this will at least pre-vaporize trackers vectored on the device identifier (technically called IDFA: ID For Advertisers).

After explaining why he thinks the default setting to ON is the better choice, and why he likes it that way (e.g. he can see what apps want to track, surprisingly few do, and he knows which they are), John says this about the IDFA:

IDFA was well-intentioned, but I think in hindsight Apple realizes it was naive to think the surveillance ad industry could be trusted with anything.

And why “ask” an app not to track? Why not “tell”? Or, better yet, “Prevent Tracking By This App”? Does asking an app not to track mean it won’t?

This is Apple being honest. Apple can block apps from accessing the IDFA identifier, but there’s nothing Apple can do to guarantee that apps won’t come up with their own device fingerprinting schemes to track users behind their backs. Using “Don’t Allow Tracking” or some such label instead of “Ask App Not to Track” would create the false impression that Apple can block any and all forms of tracking. It’s like a restaurant with a no smoking policy. That doesn’t mean you won’t go into the restroom and find a patron sneaking a smoke. I think if Apple catches applications circumventing “Ask App Not to Track” with custom schemes, they’ll take punitive action, just like a restaurant might ask a patron to leave if they catch them smoking in the restroom — but they can’t guarantee it won’t happen. (Joanna Stern asked Craig Federighi about this in their interview a few weeks ago, and Federighi answered honestly.)

If Apple could give you a button that guaranteed an app couldn’t track you, they would, and they’d label it appropriately. But they can’t so they don’t, and they won’t exaggerate what they can do.

On Twitter Don Marti writes,

Unfortunately it probably has to be “ask app not to track” because some apps will figure out ways around the policy (like all mobile app store policies). Probably better not to give people a false sense of security if they are suspicious of an app

—and then points to P&G Worked With China Trade Group on Tech to Sidestep Apple Privacy Rules, subtitled “One of world’s largest ad buyers spent years building marketing machine reliant on digital user data, putting it at odds with iPhone maker’s privacy moves” in The Wall Street Journal. In it is this:

P&G marketing chief Marc Pritchard has advocated for a universal way to track users across platforms, including those run by Facebook and Alphabet Inc.’s Google, that protects privacy while also giving marketers information to better hone their messages.

Frustrated with what it saw as tech companies’ lack of transparency, P&G began building its own consumer database several years ago, seeking to generate detailed intelligence on consumer behavior without relying on data gathered by Facebook, Google and other platforms. The information is a combination of anonymous consumer IDs culled from devices and personal information that customers share willingly. The company said in 2019 that it had amassed 1.5 billion consumer identifications world-wide.

China, where Facebook and Google have a limited presence, is P&G’s most sophisticated market for using that database. The company funnels 80% of its digital-ad buying there through “programmatic ads” that let it target people with the highest propensity to buy without presenting them with irrelevant or excessive ads, P&G Chief Executive Officer David Taylor said at a conference last year.

“We are reinventing brand building, from wasteful mass marketing to mass one-to-one brand building fueled by data and technology,” he said. “This is driving growth while delivering savings and efficiencies.”

In response to that, I tweeted,

Won’t app makers find ways to work around the no tracking ask, regardless of whether it’s a global or a one-at-a-time setting? That seems to be what the
@WSJ is saying about  @ProcterGamble ‘s work with #CAID device fingerprinting.

Don replied,

Yes. Some app developers will figure out a way to track you that doesn’t get caught by the App Store review. Apple can’t promise a complete “stop this app from tracking me” feature because sometimes it will be one of those apps that’s breaking the rules

Then Augustine Fou replied,

of course, MANY ad tech companies have been working on fingerprinting for years, as a work around to browsers (like Firefox) allowing users to delete cookies many years ago. Fingerprinting is even more pernicious because it is on server-side and out of control of user entirely

That last point is why I’ve long argued that we have a very basic problem with the client server model itself: that it all but guarantees a feudal system in which clients are serfs and site operators (and Big Tech in general) are their lords and masters. Though my original metaphor for client-server (which I have been told was originally a euphemism for slave-master) was calf-cow:

Here’s more on that one, plus some other metaphors as well:

I’ll pick up that thread after visiting what Nick says about fingerprinting:

There are countless ways that devices can be fingerprinted, and the mandated use of IDFA instead of those surreptitious methods makes it harder for ad tech companies to be sneaky. It has long been possible to turn off IDFA or reset the identifier. If it did not exist, ad tech companies would find other ways of individual tracking without users’ knowledge, consent, or control.

And why “ask” an app not to track? Why not “tell”? Or, better yet, “Prevent Tracking By This App”? Does asking an app not to track mean it won’t?

History has an answer for those questions.

Remember Do Not Track? Invented in the dawn of tracking, back in the late ’00s, it’s still a setting in every one of our browsers. But it too is just an ask — and ignored by nearly every website on Earth.

Much like Do Not Track, App Tracking Transparency is a request — verified as much as Apple can by App Review — to avoid false certainty. Tracking is a pernicious reality of every internet-connected technology. It is ludicrous to think that any company could singlehandedly find and disable all forms of fingerprinting in all apps, or to guarantee that users will not be tracked.

I agree. This too is a problem with the feudal system that the Web + app world has become, and Nick is right to point it out. He continues,

The thing that bugs me is that Searls knows all of this. He’s Doc Searls; he has an extraordinary thirteen year history of writing about this stuff. So I am not entirely sure why he is making arguments like the ones above that, with knowledge of his understanding of this space, begin to feel disingenuous. I have been thinking about this since I read this article last night and I have not come to a satisfactory realistic conclusion.

Here’s a realistic conclusion (or at least the one that’s in my head right now): I was mistaken to assume that Apple has more control here than it really does, and it’s right for all these guys (Nick, John, Augustine, Don and others) to point that out. Hey, I gave in to wishful thinking and unconscious ad hominem argumentation. Mea bozo. I sit corrected.

He continues,

Apple is a big, giant, powerful company — but it is only one company that operates within the realities of legal and technical domains. We cannot engineer our way out of the anti-privacy ad tech mess. The only solution is regulatory. That will not guarantee that bad actors do not exist, but it could create penalties for, say, Google when it ignores users’ choices or Dr. B when it warehouses medical data for unspecified future purposes.

We’ve had the GDPR and the CCPA in enforceable forms for awhile now, and the main result, for us mere “data subjects” (GDPR) and “consumers” (CCPA) is a far worse collection of experiences in using the Web.

At this point my faith in regulation (which I celebrated, at least in the GDPR case, when it went into force) is less than zero. So is my faith in tech, within the existing system.

So I’m moving on, and working on a new approach, outside the whole feudal system, which I describe in A New Way. It’s truly new and small, but I think it can be huge: much bigger than the existing system, simply because we on the demand side will have better ways of informing supply (are you listening, Mark Pritchard?) than even the best surveillance systems can guess at.

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